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Letters that echo from the GOP front

Sunday, October 19, 2003

Holding it in my hand, I nearly trembled over its raw authenticity -- a letter from the front, circa 1943. The author, Andy Novak of the South Side, fought Hitler all over Europe and Africa. He'd been decorated time after time after time.

This was at his brother Bernie's kitchen table a couple of years ago, on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor. Bernie was in the war, too. In the Navy. Iceland, Normandy, the Pacific, all over. All five Novak boys were in the war.

But this letter, from Andy to his mom, who couldn't read English, somehow in its humble eloquence explained the history-turning heroism of ordinary people. Andy wrote virtually nothing of himself or of his experiences but simply asked after everyone at home and thanked his mother for some pictures she'd sent. He said it made his eyes well up to see everyone looking so good.

Letters from the front, in this view, are supposed to take their place among the most sacred artifacts of America's historical subtext.

But in another view, specifically that of the U.S. Army in Iraq, letters home are nothing special, at least nothing special enough that they can't be part of a cheap political stunt that is, at best, the tool of Bush administration dullards or, at worst, a despicable deceit.

The Gannett News Service this week broke the story that some 500 letters from Iraq-based U.S. soldiers are identical except for the signatures, and that many turned up in hometown newspapers praising American progress in postwar Iraq. It's a spastically tawdry public relations head fake to discredit media coverage the administration views as too negative.

At least one soldier contacted by Gannett said he never signed the letter that appeared in his hometown paper in Charleston, W.Va., and several parents said they knew their sons had not signed letters appearing in other papers.

By midweek, the Army was backing away from the idea and admitted the deception.

"It sounded like a good idea at their level. But it's just not the way to do business," Lt. Col. Bill MacDonald told Gannett's Ledyard King. "They're not going to do that again."

He was speaking for the 2nd Battalion of the 503rd Airborne Infantry Regiment, but certainly not for the Republican Party, which runs these kinds of scams as part of basic strategy. It was only last January that the Post-Gazette's Dennis Roddy noted that many letters praising George W. Bush's economic policies were identically worded by different authors in newspapers coast to coast.

Roddy's examination illustrated that what were essentially form letters were written by someone at the Republican National Committee and could be e-mailed to newspapers with a mouse click by any GOP cheerleader visiting gopteamleader.com. Such letters are called "Astroturf," because their roots are purely synthetic, and detecting Astroturf is, sadly, part of the job for newspaper people who verify letters to the editor.

In the "letter" from Iraq, five paragraphs speak of "open-armed welcomes" by the Iraqi people and of "rebuilt infrastructure," two phrases not popping up often in the coverage of violence and chaos that is contemporary Baghdad.

"The quality of life and security for the citizens has been largely restored," the letter says, "and we are a large part of why that has happened."

This sounds so much better than, "We're in so far over our heads over here, it would be embarrassing if it weren't so alarming."

The problem is, Bush can't be embarrassed. Mr. Bring-It-On was gone to the hinterlands last week telling crowds not to believe what they read in the papers.

"Life is getting better [in Iraq]," he said. "Just ask the people who have been there."

Uh-huh. How about the people interviewed by Jay Shaft at the Coalition for Free Thought in Media? They'd been there. They feared reprisals for saying things unfit for letters to the editor.

"It's a constant [expletive] nightmare," said one enlisted man. "It's like a long trip to hell that you knew you might come back from. You're trying to figure out where the guerrillas are going to hit, how to keep the civilians calm, and also trying to get enough water and food to eat. In the last two weeks I was there, we were attacked at least 20 times a day if you count all the shots we heard."

Count the shots? Bush is too busy counting votes.


Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.

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